Biblical site tied to Ark of the Covenant unearthed at convent in central Israel

Excavation uncovers a unique, monumental structure previously unknown in the region. Was it a shrine — or the site of David’s triumphant parade of the legendary ark?

by Amanda Broschel-Dan

A massive 8th century BCE man-made platform discovered at a Catholic convent in central Israel may have served as an ancient shrine to the Ark of the Covenant, said leading Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. Unearthed at Kiriath-Jearim, the shrine gives potential new insight into the political machinations of the sibling kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

Remains of the monumental elevated podium have been unearthed on a Judean hilltop long associated with the location of biblical Kiriath-Jearim. According to the Hebrew Bible, the spot was the 20-year home of the legendary Ark of the Covenant until taken by King David and paraded to Jerusalem.

The joint expedition by Tel Aviv University and the College de France is not on the trail of the elusive ark, however. Indeed Finkelstein, the dig’s co-director, does not believe the Ark of the Covenant existed.

Rather, it is in search of physical evidence from almost three millennia ago of the geopolitical situation in the border town, located between the two monotheistic kingdoms.

The large elevated platform, Finkelstein believes, was constructed by the northern kingdom as a shrine to the biblical story of the ark.

“The excavations at Kiriath-Jearim shed light on the strength of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) in the early 8th century, including, possibly, its domination of Judah,” Finkelstein told The Times of Israel. “They also illuminate an important theme in the Bible – the Ark and its history.”

An aerial view of Area C, a broad terrace on the lower eastern slope, at the end of the 2017 season, looking north. (Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim)

Alongside some 50 student volunteers, in the summer of 2017 Finkelstein and co-directors Thomas Römer and Christophe Nicolle broke ground on the Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim on the private grounds of a Catholic nunnery situated near the central Israeli-Arab village of Abu Ghosh.

According to Römer, an internationally known expert on the Hebrew Bible, the biblical stories surrounding the Ark of the Covenant served pragmatic political purposes. “The kernel of the original narrative was to legitimate Kiriath-Jearim as the new sanctuary of the shrine after the destruction or the abandonment of Shilo,” wrote Römer in an email to The Times of Israel this week.

In 1995-96, there was a small salvage excavation headed by Gabriel Barkay ahead of convent construction on the hill. There were additional surveys conducted there by Amir Feldstein in the 1980s, and Boaz Zissu and Chris McKinny in 2013.

“The previous studies – both the salvage dig and the surveys – drew a similar picture of the settlement history of the site, but no find of note has been discovered,” said Finkelstein.

That is, until the recent game-changing discovery of a massive man-made platform. The elevated rectangular podium, report the archaeologists, can be reconstructed to have been circa 150-110 m in size and covering an area of some 1.65 hectares. Created with typical Iron Age walls, 3-m wide and which still stand 2-m high, it is oriented exactly north-south and east-west.

Israeli archaeologist, Prof. Israel Finkelstein. (Argonauter, CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)

It is an oddity in the kingdom of Judah, which, according to the Bible, once ruled Kiriath-Jearim.

Finkelstein and his co-directors believe the platform may have been a shrine built by the Northern Kingdom in commemoration of the Ark of the Covenant story, a compelling narrative that speaks to a tradition shared with the kingdom of Judah.

Could it also be an indication of the power struggle in the region during the 8th century BCE?

“A Northern affiliation of the site in the early 8th century is not that surprising, because of the domination of Israel over Judah at that time and as the Ark Narrative in the Books of Samuel seems to be of Northern origin,” said Finkelstein.

According to the team’s preliminary excavation report, “The goal was probably to legitimate Kiriath-Jearim as the ‘new’ shrine of the Ark. Accordingly, in the case of a North Kingdom affiliation, the elevated platform was built in order to accommodate an Israelite administration compound, including a temple, aimed at dominating the vassal kingdom of Judah.”

A hill with a view

Modern Kiryat Ye’arim is bordered by Abu Ghosh, an Israeli-Arab village celebrated for its plethora of specialty humus shops. Today it is also known as Telz-Stone, after the European roots of the ultra-Orthodox community residing there. Located less than a kilometer north of the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem Highway, the hilltop upon which the convent sits is strategically placed.

According to the recent preliminary report “Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim near Jerusalem, 2017,” which was published in 2018 in the annual peer-reviewed Semitica journal, the hilltop “commands a sweeping view of large stretches of the coastal plain and the Mediterranean coast (from Jaffa to Ashkelon) in the west, the western neighborhoods of modern Jerusalem in the east and the Judean Mountains in the southeast.”

In the upper terrace at Kiriath-Jearim, a massive wall was unearthed some 15 cm below topsoil. The well-preserved wall is circa 3 m broad and preserved to 2.15 m on its outer face. (Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim)

Today the hill is carved up by terraced slopes dotted with olive trees, which provide an evergreen relief to the stone construction of the old 1906 convent, slightly later hostel, and the 1924 Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant.

The archaeological dig is unusually located on private church property under the protection of the French government, a situation stemming from a 1949 agreement with the fledgling State of Israel. Today the site serves as the Convent of the Ark of the Covenant, which covers the hill’s summit, and is occupied by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition.

There is no possibility of excavating the summit, an important strategic location in the ancient world. “First, we cannot disturb the peace of the convent; second, the summit is probably eroded; third, it was built over by a large monastery in the Byzantine period,” Finkelstein enumerated.

Even with the church construction, it is somewhat surprising that such an important biblical site has not yet been excavated. “Perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a private property; certainly, one can understand the wish of the nuns not to be disturbed. Now, with the College de France involved, it was easier to get the green light from the convent,” said Finkelstein.

From the initial planning stages, the team has worked closely with the nuns in finding appropriate spots between the compound’s structures. “The interaction with the nuns is cordial and friendly,” said Finkelstein.

At the dig’s conclusion, the sisters will be faced with the decision of whether to open up the site to tourists. The nuns, he said, have been very accommodating, but as the discoveries mount, are increasingly concerned about their peace of mind.

Illustration from the 13th century Morgan Bible of David bringing the Ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). (public domain via wikipedia)

Rightly so: analysis of the artifacts unearthed so far leave little doubt that this is the biblical site of Kiriath-Jearim. The name is mention in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including a detailed story in I Chronicles 13, 5-8, in which King David jubilantly transports the ark to Jerusalem.

“And David went up, and all of Israel, to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God… David and all the Israelites played, celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets,” reads the account.

Other historical texts, including the ancient name directory, the “Onomasticon” by Eusebius of Caesarea, a 3rd-4th century Church historian and counselor of Constantine the Great, also indicate this spot is the biblical site.

Likewise, the archaeologists note that the Arabic name of the site, Deir el-ʿAzar, “seems to be a corruption of ‘The Monastery of Eleazar,’ probably the name of the Byzantine monastery, which commemorated the name of the priest who was in charge of the Ark when it was kept at Kiriathjearim (1 Sam 7: 1).”

Technology to plumb ancient depths

To locate the most likely dig spot between the compound’s buildings, the team consulted World War I Bavarian aerial survey images as well as modern aerial footage, and created a hi-tech orthophoto using a drone and Digital Elevation Model.

“The high-tech methods helped us to visualize the ancient topography and locate the lines of the main terraces. So these methods helped in dictating the fields of excavations, which indeed proved to be highly successful,” said Finkelstein.

Aerial view of the site, taken by the Bavarian air force in 1918, looking north. Note large western and eastern terraces. The modern building is the old house of the convent; to its north are the foundations of the northern sector of the hostel (the church was not built yet). (Courtesy Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim)

While the team has unearthed countless artifacts, but the discovery of the Iron Age platform’s walls was clearly its biggest success.

“Indeed, the existence of these walls, which supported an elevated Iron Age platform, is the most important find so far,” said Finkelstein.

Due to the 3-D visualizations of the mound, when evidence of the platform was finally discovered, said Finkelstein, “I was surprised and not. Surprised, because this type of elevated podiums is known mainly in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and here we are on their very southern boundary. Not surprised, because from looking at the topography and the orthophoto I suspected the existence of an elevated platform on the summit.”

The platform, a monumental architectural feat, compels the question of who built it? Which people would have had the ability to construct it in the era suggested by the pottery dating and the walls’ appearance? In an additional wrinkle, there is the paucity of culturally typifying finds. “There is nothing in the material culture, except for the podium, to hint at the north,” said Finkelstein.

Stymied, the scientists commissioned hi-tech Optical Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating, which suggested the time period of Iron IIB, or circa 8th century BCE

Digital Elevation Model of the mound of Kiriath-Jearim. (Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim)

“Bearing in mind the monumentality of this endeavor, and the fact that no elevated platforms of this type are known in Judah, there are two possibilities within the Iron IIB: an Assyrian venture after 720 BCE, or a North Israelite construction before 732 BCE, in fact before the beginning of decline of the kingdom in 747 BCE,” write the archaeologists in their report.

According to the archaeologists, other similar platforms were well-known in the Northern Kingdom during the suggested window of time, including in the capital Samaria. Typically they consisted of massive support walls with land fills which create an artificial hill.

The pottery debris close to the wall dates to the Iron IIB (900-700 BCE), said the archaeologists and the timing of the construction could also point to the northern kingdom: “An elevated platform at Kiriath-Jearim could have been built by Israel following the subjugation of Judah by Joash,”  as noted in 2 Kings 14: 11-13.  “Accordingly, the days of Jeroboam II (788-747 BCE), in the middle of the 8th century, well-fit both the OSL and the ceramic data,” write the authors.

During the course of the excavation, and in comparing the findings from the smaller earlier digs, the archaeologists discerned continued, intensified settlement in the following Iron IIC period (700-586 BCE), as well as reconstruction of the platform. Further reconstruction occurred in the late Hellenistic periods. “The latter may be associated with the fortification efforts undertaken by the Seleucid General Bacchides,” suggest the scholars.

One platform to rule them all

The second excavation season will commence in August 2019 with an equally large team of professionals and volunteers. “This time too we plan to put the main emphasis on the big walls which support the elevated platform,” said Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, for whom the Ark of the Covenant is legend, not fact, said there is no physical evidence at Kiriath-Jearim of the ark having historically resided at the site — nor does he expect to find any. But why the legend was propagated is of interest to the team.

At Kiriath-Jearim, excavation of a set of terraces along the southeastern slope of the mound. (Shmunis Family Excavations at Kiriath-Jearim)

“Why the Northern Ark Narrative was introduced into the Bible is a very good question. It is one of a series of Northern traditions which found their way to the south. Perhaps the idea was to explain how the ark found its way to Jerusalem,” he said.

Finkelstein’s excavation co-director Römer weighed in, “The Ark narrative was introduced into the Bible because in its present form it legitimates Jerusalem as the only ‘official’ sanctuary of Yhwh, since according to the Biblical narrative, David transferred the Ark there from Kiriath-Jearim.

“Later redactors made of the stay of the ark in Kiriath-Jearim a short period [in 1 Samuel 7:2: it is written that the ark was housed for 20 years] in order to suggest that the ark arrived quite quickly in Jerusalem. But historically that happened much later, probably under King Josiah,” wrote Römer.

The large platform at Kiriath-Jearim would have been multi-functional — both as a shrine and a ruling center, said the excavators.

“A platform can of course contain a shrine,” said Römer, “and the fact that according to 1 Samuel 7:1 the ark did not return to Shiloh from where it was captured but came to Kiriath-Jearim clearly indicates the cultic function of the place.”

Finkelstein suggested that the story of the Ark “served the ideology of the Northern Kingdom in the time of Jeroboam II, as well as the actual territorial needs which stemmed from the domination over Judah.”

“I suspect that this shrine of the ark was part of a United Israel (ruled from Samaria) ideology – the forerunner of the later Judahite United Monarchy concept,” said Finkelstein.

As taken from,

Why I am controversial

Nathan Lopez Cardozo teaching at a past Limmud. (Courtesy Limmud Jerusalem)

Nathan Lopez Cardozo teaching at a past Limmud. (Courtesy Limmud Jerusalem)

10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz

“I was hospitalized in Maimonides hospital in Haifa, and I suddenly realized that the Torah was also hospitalized. I was covered in bandages, and I saw how impossible it is to live in bandages. I decided that when I would go free from my bandages, I would not leave my teaching in bandages. I would also free the Torah from its bandages.”  —Rav Shagar (1)  (As told by his well-known student Rabbi Elchanan Nir (2))

Recently, I was invited to respond to 10 personal questions asked by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, co-founder and dean of the Society of Independent Spirituality, a learning center in Jerusalem, which combines Jewish spirituality and Zionism. (3)

I agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.

Here is the first question and my response.

* * *

Question One

You have taught and inspired so many different students over the years, in a variety of religious and spiritual institutions. And yet, I get a sense that your greatest impact is made through people studying your books in general, and reading your weekly spiritual articles in particular. I myself have never sat in your classroom, and yet I feel like a student of yours, having read your books and weekly articles for many years now.

Can you say a little about the educational and spiritual goals of your weekly articles? What do you want your readers to experience when they read these articles? How do you yourself experience these goals and articles?

Nathan Lopes Cardozo: The educational and spiritual goal in my writings and lectures is to create great religious and intellectual excitement about Judaism. I want people to understand that Judaism is a protest movement that challenges the human condition. It abhors religious plagiarism, self-contentment and (religious) behaviorism. Judaism is a challenge, not a drug that people can use to put themselves to sleep so as to feel good about themselves. Louis Jacobs once said that religion has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable (4).

Judaism is there to disturb; not to take anything for granted, but to discover the miraculous behind the ordinary. With the passage of years, and because of the Galut experience, it could no longer grow in an organic way. It got stuck and lost its vibrant spirit. Instead, it often became rigid and unbending, and even produced dogmas, which completely undermined its true spirit. Simultaneously, it became overly codified, taken hostage by an uncompromising Halacha, eventually losing its essence.

We should never forget what the famous Danish thinker and father of religious existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, said about Christians:

“The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [same-minded] Christians.” (5)

This is also true about religious Jews. The more they behave alike and have identical beliefs, the greater the proof of Judaism’s deterioration. After all, it is impossible for people to be similar in the way they touch on the very meaning of their lives, how they deal with it, and how they stand before God. It can only be personal, different, and full of struggle accompanied by emotional upheaval.   

Judaism also became victimized by misrepresentation, deliberate rewriting, trying to mainstream it, and using religious tyranny in order to keep the crowds under control. Many famous rabbis, especially today, are guilty of this. It is the destruction of individuality and the preciousness of the (Jewish) human being.

Because of this, Judaism can no longer respond to new challenges on an intellectual and spiritual basis and, consequently, becomes more and more irrelevant. This is especially true in relationship to the State of Israel, which brought about the most radical changes in Jewish life during the last 2000 years and requires a completely new approach. (See my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, 2018.) It’s true that many more young people have become observant and learn Torah, but often this has more to do with religious behaviorism and not with genuine religiosity. I am most concerned of a backlash.  

My writings and lectures are a protest against all this. I try to show how much genuine Judaism is (or should be) at the forefront of our time, leading the Jewish people and the world to new spiritual and intellectual dimensions.   

I have tremendous confidence in Judaism. It bursts with energy, which you can see throughout the Talmud in its multifaceted contents, its clashing opinions, and its invitation for new ideas. This energy is also apparent in Judaism’s many representations, such as the Ashkenazic, Sefardic and Lithuanian worlds; and, above all, through the innovative thinking of the outstanding Chassidic mentors with their immense rebellion against religious mediocrity. Even the Conservative and Reform movements reflect this. Although they frequently misfired and were too dedicated to “assimilationary” tendencies, they simultaneously warned against Judaism becoming stagnant.

There are, however, several other elements that I believe are crucial in making sure that Judaism will remain not just relevant but able to lead future generations who will live under drastically different spiritual and physical circumstances than we do.

There is too much lecturing and writing about Judaism that is often dry and does not convey its real mission. Judaism is not just an intellectual revolution. It is an encounter with the ineffable; it is the awareness that there is much more to life than what science or philosophy can offer us.

We need faith to penetrate into our very being in order to be really religiously Jewish. Faith is deeper than knowledge. The latter is absorbed by our brains and remains there. When one encounters real faith, all limbs quiver, and upheaval stirs the whole human being (6). Pure scientific knowledge and philosophical inquiry do not have that quality and do not know how to make the human being into a more sensitive person, surely not into a tzaddik. The question is not how much one has grasped Judaism by studying it, but how much of Judaism has permeated one’s very being. It is, above all, an experience that is highly personal and transformational. This doesn’t mean that one needs to behave in a certain way but rather to be a certain way. Its teachings must be transformed into an altogether different substance. It is almost ethereal without losing the ground under its feet. You need to passionately adore it. Once you have embraced it, it must result in your becoming a different human being. And if you didn’t, it means that you didn’t “get it,” although you may be living by its external demands.

So, I believe that Judaism is the most remarkable tradition around, standing head and shoulders above other religions and philosophies, although some of these religions and philosophies have much of importance to say.

But I believe that Judaism has not yet been (fully) born, is still undergoing many birth-pangs, and still stands in scaffolds. It is not yet sophisticated enough and suffers from immaturity.

Judaism’s beliefs have not yet been revealed on a level that gives full expression to what it potentially holds. The way in which it believes in God, “Torah min Hashamayim,” and Halacha are not yet properly expressed and lack sufficient sophistication.

I greatly struggle with these matters and have suggested other approaches to overcome these obstacles. But I am fully aware that my contributions are far from ideal.

I think this is due to the fact that I am unable to raise myself up to the level of kedusha (holiness) that opens up different aspects, which are outside of our run-of-the-mill sensation and way of thinking, and which are required in order to make a real breakthrough. I am still too much rooted in the purely academic world, which does not understand the spiritual qualities that are required to reach holiness. And so I somehow get stuck.

It is only in holiness — a difficult concept to define in Judaism — that we can penetrate these issues as we should. After all, it is kedusha (a holy way of living) that is the ultimate goal of Judaism. It requires such elevation of moral behavior—the nearly bursting of one’s soul out of one’s body, and honest humility—that I feel totally inadequate. Not only does that create a great obstacle, but I am caught in an ongoing moral dilemma. When I write and speak about all these matters and call on others to live a life of holiness, I sometimes feel like a scoundrel and a hypocrite. I know that I am not holy. I still have a long way to go. So how can I teach and write about these topics without feeling like a “pretender”? This causes me great anguish.

All I can say to justify myself is that I have never in my life met a genuinely religious person, but I have met many people who have sincerely tried and still try to be religious. Indeed that is all we can do: try; make the effort. And that is what I do. But deep down in my heart I know that it is not good enough! I could do better, but I don’t! Somehow I can’t pull it off.

But there is another element here that is probably more important than anything else, and it’s not easy to explain. There is an inner call, a shelichut, a mission that I am obliged to listen to and carry out. Even against my will. I feel that it is rooted in my unusual background: the child of a mixed marriage; an unusual secular education; many years of yeshiva learning; and going through much spiritual upheaval, all of which have made my life most beautiful, and often most uneasy if not painful.

I cannot escape this calling. It is too strong to ignore. In fact, it compels me and there is no turning back. Even if I would like to. I have often contemplated leaving this all behind and beginning to live a “normal” life. But when I tried, it completely failed. I have to accept it and turn it into something unique.  

It is the reason why I write and teach the things I teach. I know that these matters are unusual and controversial. But this is what I have to do. Especially because I know that by doing so, I am helping many sincere people who are struggling with Judaism as much as I have struggled and still do. If I would not continue, it would be a serious dereliction of duty.  

This is difficult for some people to accept, and I value that and understand their concern. Still, this is who I am and what I stand for. What some people don’t understand is that I have a strong affinity to the Haredi world. Its passion for Judaism is irresistible. I dream of it, and that’s the reason why I am so skeptical about this world. To be a Haredi, one cannot be average. One needs to be unique and live a life of such greatness, holiness, and honesty that the slightest deviation from these is a major catastrophe and chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). It should be an elite society, an example to all of us. But very often it is not. So how can it call itself Haredi, which means pious in the highest sense of the word? After all, the mitzvot were given to purge and refine us; when this is not the goal and endeavor of our religious life, why live by it?  

But in order to make this happen, I believe that Judaism must undergo a metamorphosis while remaining true to its core beliefs. Halacha needs to be reconsidered so as to be itself again – organic and creative. Because if it isn’t, it won’t be able to respond to the radical new conditions that God has granted us in these unusual days. And how then can we refine ourselves?


[1] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (1949-2007), known by the acronym HaRav Shagar, was a Torah scholar and a religious postmodern thinker. His thought was characterized by Neo-Hasidism and postmodernism. In 1996, he established Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak in Efrat and was its head until his death. He is considered one of the great Jewish thinkers of this generation.

[2] This story will be included in an upcoming book: Rav Shagar: A quide to His life and Writings by Rabbi Ari Ze’ev Schwartz and Levi Morrow.

[3] Rabbi Schwartz received his rabbinical ordination at the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Jerusalem under Rabbi Yaakov Peretz, has a B.Ed. from Herzog Academic College, and is currently finishing a master’s in education at Herzog. Previously, Rabbi Schwartz served as the head rabbi of Bnei Akiva’s Hachshara program for three and a half years. In addition, he teaches the writings of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, as well as Jewish philosophy and Tanach at several yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem. Earlier this year, Rabbi Schwartz published The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook: Writings of a Jewish Mystic through Gefen Publishing House. Together with Levi Morrow, he is now working on a book about the teachings of Rav Shagar. Rabbi Schwartz lives with his wife and two daughters in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

[4] Quoted in Elliot Jager’s “Power and politics: Celebrating Skepticism,” The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 4, 2007.

[5] M.M.Thulstrup, “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation,” in H.A. Johnson and N. Thulstrup (eds.), A Kierkegaard Critique (NY: Harper, 1962) p. 277.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973) p. 189.

As taken from,

Is it time to revisit the Law of Return?

Illustrative. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/ FLASH90)

Illustrative. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/ FLASH90)

For the first time in Israel’s history, Jewish immigrants were outnumbered by non-Jewish immigrants. On Monday, December 31, 2018, the Central Bureau of Statistics, released the following data: “17,700 of the 32,600 migrants who moved to Israel in 2018 came under the Law of Return but were listed as ‘having no religion.’ “

The principle of the Law of Return, חֹוק הַשְׁבוּת, is expressed in the first words of the Law, “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].” It is a fundamental cornerstone of Zionism and is as relevant today as the day it was passed into law (July 5, 1950).

But the devil is in the details. The criteria for Jewishness, added in 1970, include children and grandchildren of Jews. Israel turned the infamous Nuremburg law on its head: the definition of Jewishness used by the Nazis to send people to death camps became the definition to save lives of Jews, in particular those from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But a great nation-building strategy in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, may not be a great nation-building strategy in 2018.

Today, the Law of Return should apply both to Jews by religion and Jews by culture, nationality or ethnicity – having a Jewish parent or grandparent by itself should not be enough.

The definition “Jewishness” by ancestry is out of step with the realty of Jewish life today. Identity today is a matter of choice, not of birth. This is true not only of Jewish identity, increasingly, identity world-wide is fluid, people create their own identities out of free choice and free will.

Thus, there are large numbers of Jews in Israel, the USA and around the world who are Jewish by culture, nationality, or ethnicity, but neither profess nor practice Judaism as a religion.

Increasing numbers of people in survey after survey conducted by Ukeles Associates, Inc.  answer “yes” to the question, “Do you consider yourself Jewish?” and answer “none” to the question, “What is your religion?”

Israel has historically conflated the religion question with the “considers self Jewish” question. It is time to disentangle these two. The 17,700 immigrants who came to Israel in 2018 who said they had no religion are in two groups — people who consider themselves Jewish by criteria other than religion and those who do not consider themselves Jewish.

The critical question from the point of view of the security and well-being of Israel is not whether people welcomed here under the Law of Return have a Jewish parent or grandparent, but does at least one person in a family see themselves as part the Jewish people?  If yes, they belong here as a matter of right, if not, they do not belong here as a matter of right. Perhaps people coming under the Law of Return should be asked to take an oath of allegiance to the Jewish people.

Ruth’s famous biblical formulation for joining the Jewish people needs to be subdivided today: “thy people shall be my people” should be the measure of being Jewish and being guaranteed a place in Israel. “Thy God is my God“ is the measure of a commitment to being Jewish by religion. Both are valid.

As taken from,

¿Por que la caridad es considerada la mitzvá más grande?

Entregando algo en que ha invertido todo su ser en honor de Di-s

Por Malkie Janowski


A menudo he leído y oído la cita “Tzedaká (caridad) es igual a todos los otros mandamientos combinados”, dicen que es del Talmud. Pero yo soy escéptica. ¿Cómo es en verdad?


Primero permítame asegurarle que lo que ha oído es realmente correcto. La fuente de esta declaración que ha citado exactamente es del Talmud (Baba Batra 9 a).

Permítame compartir con usted algo más que nuestros sabios dijeron acerca de la tzedaká:

Tzedaká y actos de bondad equivalen a todas las mitzvot de la Torá” Talmud de Jerusalén, Peá 1:1.

“La tzedaká es más grande que todos los sacrificios” Talmud, Sucá 49 b

“Si tan sólo la gente que vivió en la generación del Diluvio y la gente de Sodoma hubieran dado tzedaká, no habrían perecido” Midrash Zutá, Cantar de los Cantares.

“Grande es la tzedaká, pues desde el día en que el mundo fue creado hasta este día el mundo se yergue sobre la tzedaká” Midrash Tana DeVei Eliahu Zuta 1.

Hay muy numerosas explicaciones que tratan acerca de la grandeza de la tzedaká por sobre todos los otros mandamientos y su naturaleza tan abarcante. Aquí hay una que estudia el tema bajo una luz muy práctica.

Muy pocas mitzvot que una persona hace requieren la investidura de todo su ser. Usted come kosher con su boca, estudia Torá con su cabeza, enciende velas de Shabat con sus manos, etc. Aun esos mandamientos que abarcan todo el cuerpo, tales como sentarse en la sucá, no involucran el total de los talentos y esfuerzos de la persona.

El ser humano posee una inclinación inherente a vivir, y a vivir bien. Esta urgencia se manifiesta al trabajar para lograr el nivel deseado de comodidad. La mayoría de la gente pasa la mayor parte de sus días esforzándose para ganar dinero, para mantener o mejorar su nivel de vida. Cuando una persona separa una parte de ese dinero, y lo da para tzedaká, no está simplemente santificando su comida o algunas otras posesiones, o sus capacidades mentales; está entregando algo en que ha invertido todo su ser en honor de Di-s. Esta es una hazaña increíble, y es lo que logra cada vez que da tzedaká.

Según tomado de,

The Necessity of Asking Questions

by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Judaism believes it’s a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions.

It is no accident that parshat Bo, the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus, should turn three times to the subject of children and the duty of parents to educate them. As Jews we believe that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless parents hand on their memories and ideals to the next generation – the story of how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way – the long journey falters and we lose our way.

What is fascinating, though, is the way the Torah emphasizes the fact that children must ask questions. Two of the three passages in our parsha speak of this:

And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'” (Ex. 12:26-27)

In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Ex. 13:14)

There is another passage later in the Torah that also speaks of question asked by a child:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deut. 6:20-21)

The other passage in today’s parsha, the only one that does not mention a question, is:

On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 13:8)

These four passages have become famous because of their appearance in Haggadah on Pesach. They are the four children: one wise, one wicked or rebellious, one simple and “one who does not know how to ask.” Reading them together the sages came to the conclusion that [1] children should ask questions, [2] the Pesach narrative must be constructed in response to, and begin with, questions asked by a child, [3] it is the duty of a parent to encourage his or her children to ask questions, and the child who does not yet know how to ask should be taught to ask.

There is nothing natural about this at all. To the contrary, it goes dramatically against the grain of history. Most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. The task of the child is to obey. “Children should be seen, not heard,” goes the old English proverb. “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord,” says a famous Christian text. Socrates, who spent his life teaching people to ask questions, was condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the young. In Judaism the opposite is the case. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they grow.

Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself. “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” asked Abraham. “”Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” asked Moses. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” asked Jeremiah. The book of Job is largely constructed out of questions, and God’s answer consists of four chapters of yet deeper questions: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … Can you catch Leviathan with a hook? … Will it make an agreement with you and let you take it as your slave for life?”

In yeshiva the highest accolade is to ask a good question: Du fregst a gutte kashe. Rabbi Abraham Twersky, a deeply religious psychiatrist, tells of how when he was young, his teacher would relish challenges to his arguments. In his broken English, he would say, “You right! You 100 prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.”

Isadore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask: ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me a scientist.”

Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey.” When Hebrew was revived as a living language in the nineteenth century, and there was need for a verb meaning “to obey,” it had to be borrowed from the Aramaic: le-tsayet. Instead of a word meaning “to obey,” the Torah uses the verb shema, untranslatable into English because it means [1] to listen, [2] to hear, [3] to understand, [4] to internalise, and [5] to respond. Written into the very structure of Hebraic consciousness is the idea that our highest duty is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to obey blindly. Tennyson’s verse, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die,” is as far from a Jewish mindset as it is possible to be.

Why? Because we believe that intelligence is God’s greatest gift to humanity. Rashi understands the phrase that God made man “in His image, after His likeness,” to mean that God gave us the ability “to understand and discern.” The very first of our requests in the weekday Amidah is for “knowledge, understanding and discernment.” One of the most breathtakingly bold of the rabbis’ institutions was to coin a blessing to be said on seeing a great non-Jewish scholar. Not only did they see wisdom in cultures other than their own. They thanked God for it. How far this is from the narrow-mindedness than has so often demeaned and diminished religions, past and present.

The historian Paul Johnson once wrote that rabbinic Judaism was “an ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” Much of that had, and still has, to do with the absolute priority Jews have always placed on education, schools, the bet midrash, religious study as an act even higher than prayer, learning as a lifelong engagement, and teaching as the highest vocation of the religious life.

But much too has to do with how one studies and how we teach our children. The Torah indicates this at the most powerful and poignant juncture in Jewish history – just as the Israelites are about to leave Egypt and begin their life as a free people under the sovereignty of God. Hand on the memory of this moment to your children, says Moses. But do not do so in an authoritarian way. Encourage your children to ask, question, probe, investigate, analyze, explore. Liberty means freedom of the mind, not just of the body. Those who are confident of their faith need fear no question. It is only those who lack confidence, who have secret and suppressed doubts, who are afraid.

The one essential, though, is to know and to teach this to our children, that not every question has an answer we can immediately understand. There are ideas we will only fully comprehend through age and experience, others that take great intellectual preparation, yet others that may be beyond our collective comprehension at this stage of the human quest. As I write, we don’t yet know whether the Higgs’ boson exists. Darwin never knew what a gene was. Even the great Newton, founder of modern science, understood how little he understood, and put it beautifully: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

In teaching its children to ask and keep asking, Judaism honoured what Maimonides called the “active intellect” and saw it as the gift of God. No faith has honoured human intelligence more.

As taken from,

The God Who Acts in History

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Israelites were at their lowest ebb. They had been enslaved. A decree had been issued that every male child was to be killed. Moses had been sent to liberate them, but the first effect of his intervention was to make matters worse, not better. Their quota of brick-making remained unchanged, but now they also had to provide their own straw. Initially they had believed Moses when he performed the signs God had given him and told them that God was about to rescue them. Now they turned against Moses and Aaron, accusing them:

“May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Exodus 5:20–21)

At this point Moses – who had been so reluctant to take on the mission – turned to God in protest and anguish:

“O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people? Is this why You sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22)

None of this, however, was accidental. The Torah is preparing the ground for one of its most monumental propositions: In the darkest night, Israel was about to have its greatest encounter with God. Hope was to be born at the very edge of the abyss of despair. There was nothing natural about this, nothing inevitable. No logic can give rise to hope; no law of history charts a path from slavery to redemption. The entire sequence of events was a prelude to the single most formative moment in the history of Israel: the intervention of God in history – the supreme Power intervening on behalf of the supremely powerless, not (as in every other culture) to endorse the status quo, but to overturn it.

God tells Moses: “I am Hashem, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as My own people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:6-7). The entire speech is full of interest, but what will concern us – as it has successive generations of interpreters – is what God tells Moses at the outset: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty [E-l Shaddai], but by My name Hashem I was not known to them” (Ex. 6:3). A fundamental distinction is being made between the experience the patriarchs had of God, and the experience the Israelites were about to have. Something new, unprecedented, was about to happen. What is it?

Clearly it had to do with the names by which God is known. The verse distinguishes between E-l Shaddai(“God Almighty”) and the four-letter name of God which, because of its sanctity, Jewish tradition refers to simply as Hashem – “the name” par excellence.

As the classic Jewish commentators point out, the verse must be read with great care. It does not say that the patriarchs “did not know” this name; nor does it say that God did not “make this name known” to them. The name Hashem appears no less than 165 times in the book of Genesis. God Himself uses the phrase “I am Hashem” to both Abraham (Genesis 15:7) and Jacob (28:13). What, then, is new about the revelation of God that was about to happen in the days of Moses that had never happened before?

The Sages give various explanations. A Midrash says that God is known as Elokim when He judges human beings, E-l Shaddai when He suspends judgment and Hashem when He shows mercy.[1] Judah Halevi in The Kuzari, and Ramban in his Commentary, say that Hashem refers to God when He performs miracles that suspend the laws of nature. [2] However, Rashi’s explanation is the simplest and most elegant:

It is not written here, “[My name, Hashem] I did not make known to them” but rather “[By the name, Hashem] I was not known to them” – meaning, I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith,” by reason of which My name is “Hashem,” namely that I am faithful to fulfil My word, for I made promises to them but I did not fulfil them [during their lifetime].[3]

The patriarchs had received promises from God. They would multiply and become a nation. They would inherit a land. Neither of these promises were realised in their lifetime. To the contrary, as Genesis reaches its close, the family of the patriarchs numbered a mere seventy souls. They had not yet acquired a land. They were in exile in Egypt. But now the fulfilment was about to begin.

Already, in the first chapter of Exodus, we hear, for the first time, the phrase Am Bnei Yisrael, “the people of the children of Israel” (Ex. 1:9). Israel was no longer a family, but a people. Moses at the burning bush was told by God that He was about to bring the people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). Hashem therefore means the God who acts in history to fulfil His promises.

This was something radically new – not just to Israel but to humanity as a whole. Until then, God (or the gods) was known through nature. God was in the sun, the stars, the rain, the storm, the fertility of the fields and the sequence of the seasons. When there was drought and famine, the gods were being angry. When there was produce in plenty, the gods were showing favour. The gods were nature personified. Never before had God intervened in history, to rescue a people from slavery and set them on the path to freedom. This was a revolution, at once political and intellectual.

To most humans at most times, there seems to be no meaning in history. We live, we die, and it is as if we had never been. The universe gives no sign of any interest in our existence. If that was so in ancient times, when people believed in the existence of gods, how much more so is it true today for the neo-Darwinians who see life as no more than the operation of “chance and necessity” ( Jacques Monod) or “the blind watchmaker” (Richard Dawkins).[4] Time seems to obliterate all meaning. Nothing lasts. Nothing endures.[5]

In ancient Israel, by contrast, “for the first time, the prophets placed a value on history…For the first time, we find affirmed and increasingly accepted the idea that historical events have a value in themselves, insofar as they are determined by the will of God…Historical facts thus become situations of man in respect to God, and as such they acquire a religious value that nothing had previously been able to confer on them. It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God.”[6] Judaism is humanity’s first glimpse of history as more than a mere succession of happenings – as nothing less than a drama of redemption in which the fate of a nation reflects its loyalty or otherwise to a covenant with God.

It is hard to recapture this turning point in the human imagination, just as it is hard for us to imagine what it was like for people first to encounter Copernicus’ discovery that the earth went round the sun. It must have been a terrifying threat to all who believed that the earth did not move; that it was the one stable point in a shifting universe. So it was with time. The ancients believed that nothing really changed. Time was, in Plato’s phrase, no more than the “moving image of eternity.” That was the certainty that gave people solace. The times may be out of joint, but eventually things will return to the way they were.

To think of history as an arena of change is terrifying likewise. It means that what happened once may never happen again; that we are embarked on a journey with no assurance that we will ever return to where we began. It is what Milan Kundera meant in his phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being.”[7] Only profound faith – a new kind of faith, breaking with the entire world of ancient mythology – could give people the courage to set out on a journey to the unknown.

That is the meaning of Hashem: the God who intervenes in history. As Judah Halevi points out, the Ten Commandments begin not with the words “I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth,” but “I am the Lord your God who brought you out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Elokim is God as we encounter Him in nature and creation, but Hashem is God as revealed in history, in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and Egypt.

I find it moving that this is precisely what many non-Jewish observers have concluded. This, for example, is the verdict of the Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev:

I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint…Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.[8]

That is what God tells Moses is about to be revealed: Hashem, meaning God as He intervenes in the arena of time, “so that My name may be declared throughout the world” (Ex. 9:16). The script of history would bear the mark of a hand not human, but divine. And it began with these words: “Therefore say to the Israelites: I am Hashem, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”

Shabbat shalom


[1] Shemot Rabbah 3:6

[2] Judah Halevi, Kuzari 2:2. Ramban, commentary to Exodus 6:2.

[3] Rashi commentary to Exodus 6:3.

[4] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (New York: Vintage, 1972); Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1996)

[5] We even find this sentiment in one place in Tanach, in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both; as one dies so does the other…. Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

[6] Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper & Row, 1959, 104.

[7] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (London: Faber, 1984)

[8] Nicolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History (1936), 86–87

The Great Paradox

The Non-Existent God and the Need to Serve Him

by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization.[1]

— David Weiss Halivni

“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere”.[2] Indeed, to describe God is like trying to present something that is more than a three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. People say that God exists, but if there is nothing more to Him than simply existing, we would have to deny His being God. And even to argue that He is more than just existing is a serious understatement.

His Being is totally different from anything else, and even the word Being evaporates into a philosophical impossibility. All we can say is that His essence cannot be expressed but that He definitely can be addressed. For if we were able to grasp Him, that would be a defect in Him, said Yehudah Halevi.[3] As a sage once remarked, upon being asked to describe God’s essence, “If I knew Him, I would be He”.[4]

All God-talk is impossible. “To say too much, without qualification, is to fall into the trap of gross anthropomorphism. To say too little is to court the opposite risk of having so many reservations that the whole concept [of God] suffers, in Anthony Flew’s pungent phrase, ‘the death of a thousand qualifications’”.[5]

Jewish tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being,” consists of the Hebrew letters: Yud, Heh, Vav and Heh. According to the Sages of Israel, the name reflects the different dimensions of “being” related to time: past, present and future. As such, God figures as the One Who lives in these three dimensions simultaneously, making them one and the same, which means that He is beyond all of them. The notion of time, then, becomes empty of all meaning.[6]

Since this name of God expresses the idea of otherness, Judaism does not allow this name to be uttered. Man, after all, lives in time, a kind of broken eternity. If he were to pronounce the four-letter name, it would give the impression that he actually grasps the unfathomable concept called God. That would be an untruth, and Jewish law forbids lying.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:

When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead, your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself, and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect.[7]

And herein lies the great paradox. Is God really perfect as we always maintain? God Himself tells Moshe Eheyeh asher eheyehI will be what I will be. Not “I am what I am” as the Septuagint mistranslates. But how can that be? It means that He is not yet what He should be and that He never will be. Apparently He is incomplete, because He seems capable of changing and moving toward perfection, but He will never be able to actually reach perfection. God is trapped in a contradiction. So, is God a verb? Always “godding”? Always imprisoned in a becoming mode? What then is God? An unending trial to be God?

When looking in the Torah, we see no indication that God “is,” or that He is perfect. Instead, He is always on the move. He changes His mind, regrets what He did, gets annoyed, and does things that are downright disturbing, and often irritating. That is far from being perfect.

Indeed, what does “perfect” mean? Perfect by what definition? Something can be perfect only within its own category. A bottle can be perfect as long as it is a bottle.[8] That is its limitation. It can’t be a motorcycle. When it is made so large that it loses the measurements of a bottle, and you can no longer use it as such, it is not imperfect; it has simply ceased to be a bottle. In terms of absolute perfection, God cannot be perfect, because He must include the possibility of change. If He can’t change, He can’t be perfect. But if He is able to change, how then can He be perfect? Moreover, can God put an end to His existence? And If He can’t, how perfect is He?

This is exactly what God tells Moshe: You cannot see My face, only My back.[9] I am a contradiction that is unsolvable. What you see of Me is only a shadow of what I should be but never will be. You can only see Me in human terms. Spinoza is correct when he writes, “I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God and look on everything else as ill-shaped”.[10]

But is God not a Being “than which no greater can be conceived,” as Saint Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109) taught us?[11] Isn’t He the perfection of all perfections?

So why does God appear in the Torah with human attributes, which are not applicable as far as His absolute perfection is concerned?

God appears to experience all the human emotions: love; anger; involvement; indignation; regret; sadness; and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity.[12]

All of this forces us to radically rethink the concept of God.

Consider the relationship between a computer’s chip and hard disk (the inside), on the one hand, and what you see on the screen when you view the computer… What you see on the screen is the result of what is inscribed in the inside. Change the contents in the inside and you will see something different showing on the screen. What is inscribed in the inside is nothing like what you get on the screen. Inscribed in the inside are no colors or shapes of the picture on the screen…. You can peer into the inside through the most powerful microscope and you will see no pictures of people or words. [Still] the computer has a translation mechanism from inside to the screen…. In God there is nothing like what you get on the world screen. If we knew God as God is, we would not see what we see when we see God on the world screen.[13]

So, in God there is nothing that justifies the word “exist.” When we say that He exists, we mean that there is something in God that is projected on the world screen as God’s existence, but in God there is no such thing. When we say that God changes His mind, regrets what He has done, or gets angry, it only means that on the world screen something in God (the hard disk) has been translated to state that God is changing His mind, regretting His earlier decisions, or getting angry. For God to be meaningful to man, He must appear on the screen in ways through which man can identify with Him—”In the image of God He created him”.[14] But God on the hard disk, in His essence, is something totally different about which we mortals have no clue.[15]

This analogy is far from perfect, but it gives us a better picture of what we are discussing when we contemplate God.

The idea that God is perfect, beyond time and space, while simultaneously entering this world and possessing emotions is as paradoxical as relativity, quantum physics, black holes, Higgs bosons and other counterintuitive phenomena. They are inexplicable but as real as they can be while lacking the character of “conventional” existence.

So, does God exist? God forbid! And precisely for that reason we should pray to Him and observe His commandments. Were He to exist, our prayers would be meaningless and our adherence to the mitzvot idol worship.


[1] Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivini, “Professor Saul Lieberman z.l.,” Conservative Judaism, vol. 38 (Spring 1986) pp. 6-7. (Prof. Halivni taught Talmud and Classical Rabbinics in the Department of Religion at Columbia University until 2005. He now lives in Israel and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar Ilan University. He is one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of our time.)

[2] Voltaire: It is a pity that God allowed this profound statement to come from the mouth of a person who was an arch anti-Semite.

[3] Kuzari, 5,21.

[4] Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim 2, 30.

[5] Louis Jacobs, “God,” Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1987) pp. 291-8.

[6] See the remarkable narrative in the Talmud, Yoma 38b, where Ben Kamtzar wrote the four-letter Name in one go, by taking four pens between his fingers. For the Rogatchover Gaon’s unusual interpretation of this narrative, see “The Gaon of Rogatchov: A study in Abstraction” by Dovber Schwartz, Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, vol. 15 (Summer 2013) pp. 245–270.

[7] Elima Rabati 1:10,4b.

[8] See Yoram Hazony, Jerusalem Letters, no. 21, November 26, 2012.

[9] Shemot 33:23.

[10] Benedictus de Spinoza, The Letters, tr. by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), “Letter to Hugo Boxel, 1674.

[11] Proslogion (1077–1078), ch. 2. This is the famous ontological argument.

[12] Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) p. 177.

[13] Jerome (Yehudah) Gellman, God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (Boston: Academic Press, 2013) pp 20-21. This remarkable book is required reading.

[14] Bereshit 1:27.

[15] Hopefully one day I will explain why this is also true when God speaks, or gives the Torah at Mount Sinai. God does this only on the world screen, but in God there is no such thing.

As taken from,

Why Is Tanya Called “Tanya”?

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.
You may be familiar with the Tanya, the fundamental text of Chabad Chassidic philosophy written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Interestingly, the work was originally published under another title: Likkutei Amarim, “Collected Discourses” (Slavita, 1796). The author humbly refers to his masterpiece as simply a collection of works and teachings of earlier rabbis, disclaiming any originality for his work. It was subtitled Sefer shel Beinonim, “Book of the Intermediates,” indicating that the Tanya is intended for the average Jew, the intermediate person whose moral position is between the tzaddik (“righteous”) and rasha (“wicked”).

Yet the book was simply referred to as the Tanya (“we have learned”), which is the first word of the text. The second time it was published (Zolkiew, 1798), it was done so under the title Tanya, with Likkutei Amarim as the subtitle.

Why is the book referred to as the Tanya? How does this title encapsulate the essence of this holy work? To further complicate things, tanya does not even seem like the appropriate word with which to begin the text.

Generational Terminology in the Talmud

The 1796 Slavita edition is not yet referred to as Tanya on its cover page (credit:
The 1796 Slavita edition is not yet referred to as Tanya on its cover page (credit:

Every beginning student of Talmud is taught that when the Talmud uses the term tanya, it is introducing a baraita, a teaching from the Tannaim, the rabbis of the Mishnaic age. These sages flourished in Israel during the era of the Second Temple and approximately 200 years afterward.

The Tanya opens with such a quote from the Talmud:

Tanya [It has been taught] (in the end of the third chapter of Tractate Niddah): An oath is administered to him [i.e., the soul before birth, warning him]: “Be righteous and be not wicked; and even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as if you were wicked.”

But if you open a Talmud to Niddah 30b, you’ll find that this teaching is actually attributed to Rabbi Simlai, who lived in the 3rd century, after the period of the Tannaim had ended. In fact, when the Talmud introduces this teaching, it does so with the words darash Rabbi Simlai, “Rabbi Simlai taught.”

Although there are rare manuscripts of Tractate Niddah where this teaching is preceded with tanya and not attributed to Rabbi Simlai,1 this is not the commonly accepted version.

It appears as though Rabbi Schneur Zalman specifically chose to start his work with the word tanya, and he underscored this intention by introducing the Talmudic teaching in a nonstandard way.2 The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (and grandson of Rabbi Schneur Zalman), gives two explanations as to why this could be.

Combatting Impurity

This 1805 Zolkiew edition has Tanya as the main title on its cover page (credit:
This 1805 Zolkiew edition has Tanya as the main title on its cover page (credit:

In explaining why a special section of the Zohar, known as the Idra Rabbah3 (“The Great Assembly”),starts with the word tanya, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (“the Arizal”) explains that tanya is also the name of an especially strong negative spiritual force. This force specifically targets Torah scholars by trying to convince them that “it is enough to learn the revealed aspects of the Torah, and there is no need to delve into the mystical.” However, it is specifically through learning the deeper mystical aspects of the Torah that one breaks this negative force.4

Thus, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was indicating that by learning the Tanya, one can break this negative force and realize the importance of learning the deeper aspects of the Torah.5

Eitan: More Power to You

The Zohar notes that the word eitan, which means “powerful” or “mighty,” is an anagram of the word tanya.6

In his work Likkutei Torah, Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that every Jew has a level called eitan, i.e., “might,” which stems from the essence of the soul and gives us the strength to serve G‑d even in the face of adversity.7

The Tzemach Tzedek explains that by beginning his work with the word tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was hinting that through learning Tanya, we arouse the eitan of our souls, strengthening us in our service of our Creator.8

See What is the Tanya? or just begin learning Tanya here.

1. This teaching is also found in the Talmud, Yevamot 71b, and there it does say the word tanya. Although some commentaries remark that it is a mistake, we also find tanya used to introduce this teaching in Yalkut Shimoni, beginning of Parshat Tazria. Additionally, in his commentary on Yevamot, Rabbi Avraham Min ha-Har (“from the mountain”) refers to this as a baraita that was taught in Niddah. So why did the author specifically cite the teaching from Niddah, where it is generally not preceded by tanya, instead of Yevamot? It appears as if he goes out of his way to show that there is specific intention in using this word.
2. See Torat Menachem 5714, vol. 1, pp. 276–7.
3. Commonly printed in Parshat Naso of the Zohar.
4. Quoted in Ohr ha-Ganuz 2:19.
5. Beit Rebbe, p. 106; Torat Menachem 5714, vol. 1, pp. 276–7.
6. See Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 21.
7. Likkutei Torah, Parshat Re’eh.
8. See Sefer ha-Sichot 5703, p. 95.

Ten New York Times Journalists Accuse Israel of ‘Possibly a War Crime’

by Ira Stoll

Palestinian rioters on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, Oct. 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

The New York Times devoted a lot of resources to its investigative project about the death of a 20-year-old Gaza medic named Rouzan al-Najjar. The article runs at the top of the front page of the Sunday newspaper and then consumes an additional three full broadsheet pages inside. It carries the front-page bylines of five Times reporters (at least one a veteran of Al Jazeera) and also credits inside an additional five named Times journalists and a photographer.

Alas, however, rather than being a Times tour de force, a display of the newspaper at its best, the article ends up as a flop, a demonstration of the Times at its worst. The Times may use thousands of words, millions of dollars worth of highly paid journalists, and elaborate computer graphics to convey its message. But strip away the attempt at a dignified presentation, and the message is effectively the same as a sign scrawled by some ignorant far-left or far-right Israel-hater at some extremist Christmas-season rally — Jews, this libel goes, are guilty, blood-drenched killers.

The problems with the article begin with the front-page subheadline: “Israel Killed a Medic. Was It an Accident?” Journalism is supposed to answer questions, not interrogate readers. Usually the question headline is a veil for journalism that falls short of reaching a conclusion. In this case, the Times wants to accuse Israel of murdering this woman, but it can’t quite prove its case, so it hides behind the question headline.

It’s not only punctuation marks that the Times uses to perform this two-step move of accusing Israel of murder while not quite coming all the way out and forthrightly saying so. The Times also hides behind the weasel word “possibly.” A graphic claims “a New York Times investigation shows that the shooting appears to have been reckless at best, and possibly a war crime,” language that is repeated in the article. As a reader, I want the Times to report on what happened, not on what “possibly” happened. Otherwise, there’d be no end to speculative Times articles. If ten Times journalists can’t find a genuine war crime, just “possibly” a war crime, possibly they should find something else to write about.

The Times poses as evenhanded. “Each side is locked into an unending and insolvable cycle of violence,” the Times claims, using a cliche of moral equivalence. It adopts an above-the-fray pose, like the umpire at a tennis match: “To the Palestinians, she was an innocent martyr killed in cold blood…To the Israelis, she was part of a violent protest aimed at destroying their country.”

But a closer examination shows the Times isn’t really evenhanded at all.

The Times, for example, describes Israel as “the far stronger party” relative to the Palestinians. But there are somewhere between 1.5 billion and 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and around 14 million Jews. There are about 50 Muslim-majority countries, and one small Jewish state. The Muslims also have a lot of the oil. It may be convenient for the Times to stir sympathy for the Palestinians by depicting them as the underdogs, but it’s not as clear-cut a factual matter as the Times describes it.

The Times describes the conflict as “insolvable,” but it also complains that Israel “continues to focus on containment rather than finding a solution.” It seems unfair to criticize Israel for failing to solve a problem that the Times itself concedes is “insolvable.”

Another sign of Times bias is the way it uses language to exculpate Palestinian Arab terrorism. The Times reports, “rocket attacks and bombings after the Second Intifada erupted in 2000 prompted Israel to cordon off the strip and eventually abandon its settlements there.” Later on in the story the Times writes, “then came the rockets,” as if the rockets just arrived on their own, immaculately. The rocket attacks and bombings just “erupted” on their own, to hear the Times tell it, rather than being launched or perpetrated by Palestinians with violent, murderous intent. The Times doesn’t tell us about the victims of those rocket attacks and bombings. It is, however, happy to dwell on “the Palestinian death toll” of “victims” in Gaza protests. Writes the Times, “the victims include two women and 32 children. Journalists. A double-amputee in a wheelchair…” How sexist and able-ist of the usually hyper-woke Times to imply that women or amputees can’t be formidable combatants. Sheik Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was a quadriplegic, but that didn’t make him any less evil or deadly.

Nor is this the only way that the Times violates its own liberal principles in its depiction of Gaza. Writing about Rouzan al-Najjar’s aunt being pushed down a staircase by Rouzan al-Najjar’s grandmother, the Times reports of the aunt, “Both she and the fetus she was carrying were killed.” Never mind that the entire editorial column of Sunday’s Times is devoted to the first in a multipart series reporting that “the creation of the legal scaffolding for the idea that the fetus is a person has been the steady work of the anti-abortion movement” and about “a deep shift in American society, away from a centuries-long tradition in Western law and toward the embrace of a relatively new concept: that a fetus in the womb has the same rights as a fully formed person.” Times readers might wonder, in the context of abortion rights in America, about whether a fetus can be “killed” if it isn’t alive to begin with. But when it comes to depicting Gaza as a hellhole for which Israel is largely to blame, the Times won’t even let otherwise precious liberal axioms such as fetal non-personhood get in the way.

The Times article concludes by claiming that Najjar “has become a symbol, perhaps not of what either side had hoped, but of a hopeless, endless conflict and the lives it wastes.”

That’s a dodge, because the gist of the rest of the piece is that it’s not the “conflict” that killed her, but an Israeli sniper, in what was “possibly a war crime.” And now, thanks to the work of at least ten Times journalists and whatever editors decided to set them loose on this story and to give it prominent play, her life isn’t a “waste,” but rather has become a valuable propaganda tool for the Palestinian Arabs, who can now use her death to depict Israel to the Times audience as reckless murderers, and Israelis as war criminals, or at least “possibly” war criminals.

None of this is to say that the Israeli troops defending the border with Gaza performed perfectly, or that there isn’t room for journalism that can help Israel do a better job at it going forward. No human is perfect. US police and American troops accidentally kill people, too, and Palestinian Arab terrorists intentionally kill people. For whatever reason, though, the Times has decided that this Gaza death is worth the time of ten journalists and three pages of the Sunday newspaper, while the death of an Israeli American, Ari Fuld, wasn’t deemed fit to print by the Times at all.

If one were to take a Timesian approach, one would write it with a question headline: “Times Pays More Attention To a Palestinian Death Than to an Israeli American One. Was It an Accident?” And then one would weasel around the issue: “the Times journalism appears to have been careless at best, and possibly a blood libel.” But I’ll reject that approach and be more direct and forthright. The New York Times “investigation,” for all its dignified trappings, is just the same old Israel-bashing you can get for free on any extreme right or extreme left Internet site or social media feed. Save yourself the time and the money and the heartburn and skip it.

As taken from,

How to Teach the Holocaust Going Forward

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

by Ben Cohen – Imagine that you are a Jewish doctor in a Nazi concentration camp. About 100 of your fellow inmates suffer from diabetes, and you only have a limited supply of insulin, with no guarantee of more on the way. Do you give each patient the same amount regardless of individual need, knowing that all of them will likely die within a month? Or do you reserve your supply for those with a greater chance of survival, meaning that those with severe diabetes will die much sooner as a result?

Or imagine that you are the Greek Jewish teenager from Salonika who’s picked up enough German from polishing the boots of the Nazi officers occupying your city that when you are eventually deported to Auschwitz, your linguistic abilities land you a low-level clerical job, instead of a spot in the gas chamber. In the camp administrative office, you have access to the index-card system that assigns each prisoner to a different slave-labor brigade — most of which involves punishing physical work in the freezing outdoors, with the risk of frostbite, pneumonia, beatings, or even execution for those deemed by the guards to be slacking off.

One of your fellow prisoners, who is near death, begs you to sneak his card into the box of a different brigade, one with lighter duties. As long as your Nazi overlords don’t catch you, it’s in your power to do that. But if you decide to help your friend, then you have to switch his card out with that of another person from the same brigade, and then that person spends his or her days facing snow, ice, and death from starvation. What do you do? And, come to think of it, how on earth did you end up in this position?

The above documented examples are what many Holocaust scholars and educators like to describe as “choiceless choices” — appalling moral dilemmas faced by a people that were systematically dehumanized by the Nazi regime, and who knew that they faced death at any second. They formed part of an intense, enriching four days that I spent with a small group of other writers and journalists at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust commemoration museum, memorial, and institute that was established in 1953 through a law passed by the Knesset.

We were there to study and discuss many aspects of the Holocaust — from “choiceless choices” to archive management to Holocaust art — but we did so from a starting point that the way we teach younger generations about the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe and North Africa is changing radically.

Holocaust survivors have all reached advanced ages, meaning that there won’t be any in-person testimonies to listen to within a few years, even if we are left with their accounts captured on video, holograms, or other forms of visual reproduction. Since 1945, countless other genocides have wreaked havoc in the Balkans, much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, while a few of those that occurred before — the Herero nation slaughtered by German colonists in southern Africa, the Armenians annihilated by Turkey — to this day remain under-recognized. Is the Holocaust, it is often asked, any more important than these other demonstrations of inhumanity in the world?

And there’s more, much more. In countries like Lithuania and Ukraine, wartime collaborators with the Nazis are now being lionized as anti-Communist heroes. The Israeli government walks an undignified diplomatic tightrope with these states, having to balance present-day bilateral relations with guardianship of the Holocaust’s truths. Elsewhere, some Holocaust-commemoration activities are so fixated with a universalist approach that basic facts about the Jewish character of the genocide — like the young diarist Anne Frank having been Jewish, and being deported because she was Jewish — are buried in a bid to be “meaningful” to “everyone.”

Meanwhile, in Western Europe and the United States, social protest movements like the “Yellow Vests” in France and the Women’s March in America have been penetrated by Holocaust-deniers, antisemitic conspiracy-mongers, and advocates of Israel’s elimination. And that’s not to mention those who don’t deny the Holocaust, but delight in invoking the Nazis as a metaphor for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians or go the whole hog by — check out the French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala — making fun of it in front of receptive crowds in theaters.

In the recent past, perhaps the key Holocaust debate was why the Allied powers did so little to stop it. During our group’s exchange with Avner Shalev, the chair of Yad Vashem who pioneered its renewal over the last two decades, he related the story of guiding President George W. Bush around the institute’s impressive museum. When they reached the exhibit about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust, Bush turned to his then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and asked: “Why didn’t FDR bomb the camps? He should have.”

But that burning question has been superseded by an even more vexing one: Why should we seek to educate about the Holocaust in a world where the phrase “Never Again” sounds farcical to many people? There are many answers, and to my mind, there are three key ones.

First, there are still some survivors of the Holocaust. I think specifically of a man named Albert de Leeuw and 150 other former child laborers in the Amsterdam ghetto, who have still not received proper compensation from the German government, and continue fighting for that recognition in the twilight of their lives. To abandon them now would be shameful.

Second, however much people believe politics has changed with the rise of populism on left and right in the last several years, the Holocaust remains a truly foundational moment of our era and the source of many of the international institutions that, for good or ill, manage international relations today. Look back and you will see that the Holocaust changed a good deal more than we realize — for example, how we look at art and music, or our relationship with technology and our agonizing about inclusiveness in our society. As we prepare in 2019 to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, expect much more reflection on all that.

Thirdly, if we are to teach our children the basic facts of the Holocaust, they can be boiled down like this: Six million Jews died because they were dehumanized for being Jews. Many of them resisted, in a variety of ways. And far too many were faced with the “choiceless choices” that symbolize the reality of the Holocaust.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, The New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

As taken from,